|The Clippers' sixth man could be having an All-Star season. (Getty Images)|
MINNEAPOLIS -- The ball dances on the hardwood.
There are players who pound the ball into the ground with a purpose. They dribble with power, forcing the ball to bounce back into their hands with enough force to make them feel in complete control of it. Without the forceful dribble, it could get away from them; it could feel like you're attempting to dribble a football.
That's not an issue when Jamal Crawford is dribbling a basketball. The ball dances off the hardwood and into his fingertips like sunlight reflecting off a diamond ring. It's an extension of his hand, almost magnetized to his hand in a way that few other players in the NBA can show with the simple motion of pushing a ball into the ground by flapping your fingers.
It's chaotic control. What he does with his handle is set up his shot, which can be as deadly as any scorer in the NBA. Crawford shoots a lot, but that's his role on the Los Angeles Clippers. Put the ball in the basket, and lead the second unit. Give this team a perimeter scorer who can create for himself. Be the guy who doesn't rely on Chris Paul to get his own bucket. His role is to give Paul a break from having to orchestrate.
"It's nice because you come out of the game, and the second team's in there," Blake Griffin said after the Clippers' 90-77 victory over the Minnesota Timberwolves on Thursday night. "There's absolutely no let-up. A lot of times, they pick the pace up and they get stops. Jamal can heat up in a heartbeat. It's fun to be a part of.”
And Jamal can certainly heat up. Fiftenn times this season, he has scored 20 points or more off the bench; the Clippers are 12-3 in those games. He scored 22 points on Thursday night to lead the Clippers in the team's 31st victory in 40 games. It's the franchise's best record through 40 games, the previous being 24-16 (in 2005-06 and 1974-75, the latter when they were the Buffalo Braves).
"Jamal's a guy who takes tough shots," coach Vinny Del Negro said after the game, "but he also makes tough shots. He's very difficult to contend with off the dribble. And when he gets going, he's hard to turn off, especially his passing ability off the dribble. He's been a key player for us all year.”
Crawford is averaging 16.7 points off the bench and has the third-highest true shooting percentage of his career (54.6 percent). The top teams in the league often flirt with putting three members of their team in the All-Star Game, and the Clippers currently sit a half game behind the Thunder for the best record in basketball. With Paul and Griffin being voted into the All-Star Game, could Crawford find his way onto what should be a loaded Western Conference team?
"Absolutely," Griffin declared. "He's got to be the leading scorer off the bench in the NBA. He's been as big a part of this team as anybody. He should be an All-Star."
“I absolutely think he's Sixth Man [of the Year], and he should be an All-Star this year," teammate Chauncey Billups said after the game. "I really do. If you look at the role that he's playing on our team and we're one of the best teams in basketball, so it's not like he's just playing well and it doesn't matter. He's making a huge effect on a good team.
"Jamal's been great. He's filled a great role for this team, coming off the bench and scoring. We don't have a lot of lulls offensively because he can get a bucket at anytime. And he's a very underrated passer as well. He can make plays with the ball. In my eyes, it's one of his best seasons."
Griffin is slightly off on his assessment of Crawford's scoring. He's tied with J.R. Smith of the New York Knicks for leading bench scorers. Both have scored 636 points in 38 games. He doesn't have sole leadership of the best bench scorer title in the NBA but did close the six-point gap that Smith held on him.
So how does Crawford like his role with his sixth team in 13 seasons?
"You know what?" Crawford reflected after being the leading scorer in a game for the eighth time this season. "It's easy, honestly, because all of these guys have wanted me to be me from day one. We have pros. We have guys with bodies of work. I think everybody is comfortable. We understand the bigger picture.
"Everybody has a role to play. My role is to score and try to make stuff happen. I try to do it every night."
This has been Crawford's role for a few years now. Ever since going from the Golden State Warriors to the Atlanta Hawks in 2009, he has been coming off the bench to light up the scoreboard. After having a successful two-year run with the Hawks in that role, he moved on to the Portland Trail Blazers and had his worst shooting year in eight seasons. So what was the reason for the bad play in Portland?
"I just thought it was a bad fit, honestly." Crawford admitted. "I was playing point guard the whole year, but no excuse; I didn't play well -- no excuse whatsoever. But this year, I came in ready and our team was ready to have a good season."
When he talks about coming in ready, Crawford dedicated himself in the gym this off-season like he had never done before. But don't let that training camp story fool you; Crawford has been in the gym every summer working on his game. However, this time he was focusing on doing more drill work.
"That was a little misleading because I'm in the gym all the time," Crawford explained. "My fiancée gets pissed off because I'm in the gym so much, even if I'm just watching, playing, whatever. But this was the first time I drilled as far as cones, shooting drills and back and forth with that stuff. I think that made a world of difference.”
The proof is in the pudding. Crawford has had a bounce-back season and been among the favorites for Sixth Man of the Year award throughout the first half of this season. He has played so well, on one of the top teams in the league, that his teammates are lobbying for his All-Star campaign, even if some pundits would say it's a futile effort to get him the recognition his team feels he deserves.
If by some chance Crawford is selected by the coaches to the Western Conference team, he'd be just the fifth bench player to be selected to the All-Star Game without being voted on by the fans. Kevin McHale did it three times (1984, 1990, 1991) and Ricky Pierce (1991), Dan Majerle (1992), and Chris Gatling (1997) all did it once.
In the meantime, Crawford will continue to score off the bench for the Clippers. He'll continue to make the basketball dance against the hardwood floor before the effortless flick of the wrist that helps him pour in points "like a faucet."
His chaotic and mesmerizing control of the ball will help set up his team and its continued success. He'll be another weapon on the deepest team in basketball as the Clippers try to contend for a title for the first time in franchise history.